Friday, November 7, 2008

Big News in Banff!

For the past week, I had a secret that I had to keep lock-lipped about until the "embargo" passed last night at 8:30 pm (Mountain Time): Fatal Tide had been selected for a Special Jury Mention at the Banff Mountain Book Awards—the Oscars for us outdoor writers. To say I was excited would be a serious understatement. I'd been a judge at the awards a couple years back, and I knew the high quality of the submissions from English language writers around the world. Oh yeah, and my book had a dearth of mountains in it, too!

I got to share a stage with two legends of the outdoor writing community: Canadian Rocky Mountain troubadour Sid Marty (whose book The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek walked off with two awards—it's next on my must-read list) and former Outside columnist Mark Jenkins (who won the Adventure Travel category for an anthology). You can check out the run-down of awards, including one of the judge's blush-inducing description of my book here.

I've got more celebrating to do tonight, so I'll fill in the gaps of the past few days later. Thanks to the fine folks at the Banff Centre and the Mountain Culture Program for making a memory I won't soon forget.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Censorship and the Arts Podcast

The Department of Continuing Studies has already mounted the podcast from last week's public forum on censorship and the arts. I'm not sure if you can download the Q&A, but you can definitely get the three individual talks. I haven't listened yet—I find it too excruciating to hear the recorded sound of my own voice—but for anyone looking to liven up the audio experience, my wife again recommends playing a podcast drinking game. Every time I mumble "sort of", you have to take a slug.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In Da News

There's been a few more reviews and articles about Fatal Tide in the past couple of weeks, including Lindsey Norris's profile in The Torch, UVic's alumni magazine; a review on Peter Darbyshire's blog; a wonderfully thoughtful review by author Angie Abdou, published in The Fernie Fix and reprinted on her blog; a detailed look at the book from an expert's angle at the paddling blog Kayak Yak; and another blush-inducing review by poet/novelist Linda Rogers in the Pacific Rim Review of Books (sadly, not online).

Thanks to all these writers for taking the time to read the book and share their thoughts with the world.

And now if someone would only drop a copy on Martin Levin's head and knock a review out of him and into the Globe & Mail....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Censorship and the Arts (alternative ending)

As I drafted my talk for the censorship and the arts forum, I originally had a different ending, in which I tried to extend my potentially controversial case "for" censorship—or at least for how it might, inadvertently, help to hone an artist's craft. I wasn't sure if this final section was fully making sense, especially after the material that preceded it, and I was near the limit of my allotted time anyway, so I decided to chop the ending out. Here it is. I think there may be something to the idea, but it still needs some work:


Censorship also has something to teach us about creative method.

It’s worth considering a story told by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino about his own artistic apprenticeship. He talks about how when he started out “the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his (or her) own time”. Eventually though he got bogged down by what he describes as “the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world”.

To rediscover the lightness—the play—in his art, Calvino turned for help to Greek mythology and in particular the tale of Medusa, whose stare turns men to stone, and Perseus, the hero who ultimately slays her. “To cut off Medusa's head without being turned to stone,” writes Calvino, “Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror... Here, certainly, the myth is telling us something… Perseus’s strength lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live.”

If the Medusa, then, is those corners of life and thought that censors would have us keep in shadow, then art that meets and overcomes that challenge is one that learns to still look into these shadow worlds but indirectly.

And that’s how art of every sort, of every genre, works best—through metaphor, allusion, reflection, cunning. One thinks of George Orwell’s famous allegories, whose targets went unnamed but not untouched. Or of the absurdist dramas of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who found subtle ways of poking holes in the illogic of a Communist regime. Or the late Risczard Kapusczinski, the globe-trotting author, part journalist, part myth-maker, whose reports from Africa and South America were also fables about his own repressed Polish homeland.

The question for Canadian artists, I suppose, when we’re allowed to say anything, is how do we learn to say it well, to adopt the indirect vision that lets us see even the darkest parts of our world the most clearly?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Don't Fear the Censor Man

I gave a talk last night for a Continuing Studies' community forum on "Censorship and the Arts: Current Issues and Controversies". I was joined by Alain Pineau, the director of the Canadian Conference for the Arts, who gave an excellent survey of recent Canadian incidents of arts censorship, and Allan Antliff, of UVic's History in Art Department, who offered a visually engaging tour of "extra-judicial censorship" of protest art in Canada and especially the U.S.

I agreed to be a sort of agent provocateur for the evening and argue (perhaps against my best interests!) for arts censorship—or at least look at the issue from a slightly different perspective. It was a thoroughly engaging evening, especially the audience Q&A that followed. I figured I ought to post my notes before they get filed away. I believe Continuing Studies
is planning to podcast the whole evening in the next week.


I wanted to begin my talk with a Zen riddle. It goes something like this: If an artist creates a work of art in the forest, and nobody is there who wants to censor it, does it really make a sound?

I ask this question only half jokingly.

When I was invited to join this forum on censorship and the arts, I thought I knew what I wanted to say. I’ve long been a hardcore Freedom of Speecher and an admirer of Americans’ first amendment rights. I figured I’d defend artists against the last redoubts of censorship in Canadian society—whether they be film boards or customs agents, human rights tribunals or even copyright lawmakers—those legal and bureaucratic obstacles to freedom of expression.

But that seemed a little too easy. And I’m hardly an expert on the topic. Instead I began to wonder why in the age of the Internet—when artists can create almost any type of cultural content and distribute it digitally and globally (unless perhaps you’re living in China and type the words “Falun Gong” or “democracy”). Why, in this borderless new world order, does censorship maintain such an iron grip on Canadian artists’ fears and imaginations, even as its influence shrivels in our daily lives and work?

That’s when I stumbled across the Introduction to a new anthology of creative writing from and about British Columbia. In it, an author describes meeting a famous Palestinian poet at a literary event. He writes: “[O]ne of the things that intrigued me about [the poet] was a rumour that he might be reduced to chopped liver by a Mossad hit squad at any time. I found it invigorating to think that I was sharing the planet with people who cared enough about poetry to shoot anybody over it.”

The author tries to picture this situation “in Canadian terms” and imagines Prime Minister Harper ordering the Canadian Forces to combat experimental poets who have “declared war on conventional imperialist grammar. I want our fighting men to spare no effort until this sinister challenge is stamped out to the last slash and hyphen!” Finally, the author throws up his hands and admits: “It didn’t quite click.”

It’s a funny passage, and it struck me for two reasons. One, the author uses the story about the Palestinian poet to argue that our own government doesn’t want to censor Canadian writers because it doesn’t need to—that “literature in industrialized society is elitist and contemptuous of common people,” so it poses little danger of inspiring citizen-readers to actions or attitudes that might upset the status quo. The same might be said for much of the arts.

Secondly, I detected a certain nostalgia for censorship—an envy of those artists in other nations who still threaten the powers that be, and are threatened in turn by the apparatus of state repression. A nostalgia for a time and a place when art really mattered.

By contrast, the only thing in Canadian culture retreating faster than the shadow of censorship is serious public discussion about the arts. Pick up a paper or turn on the TV, and if you’re lucky enough to stumble across coverage of the arts, it’s usually reduced to the form of a top-ten list or a dollar figure. Which movie opened to the biggest box office? Which painting set a new sales record at auction? Which author signed the biggest advance? Which contestant got voted off the latest reality-TV show?

It’s the great paradox of the Internet era. More people are publishing more stories and poems and memoirs, composing more music, producing more films, YouTubing more performances around the world—creating in unprecedented quantities. And yet who would argue that an appreciation or an understanding of the arts has increased with all this creation? That public discussion of culture has expanded rather than contracted?

That’s where this nostalgia comes from, I think. For most censors at least, art matters. Censors care enough to pay attention, to look beyond the price tag and sales figures to the possible meaning and impact of a work of art. Even if they only want to hide it away from the public eye. Even if they’re hunting for Satanic verses in song lyrics or spotting smut in the corners of an otherwise innocent canvas.

A decade or so ago, Canadian artists had to defend their creations more often against the censors, while public controversy focused on institutional acquisitions and exhibitions such as The Voice of Fire or The Flesh Dress. Then the debate was often (if not always) about “What is art?” rather than “Who’s number one?”

That nostalgia for such battles between artists and censors appeared again in the lead-up to the federal election. When Stephen Harper quietly tried to unplug a number of funding programs, artists across the country got red in the Facebook and the Internet lit up with charges of censorship. The Conservatives’ cultural cutbacks were a lot of things—underhanded, undemocratic, ideological, and, as it turned out, an act of political hari-kari in Quebec.

But to describe the elimination of travel grants or funding for digital projects as “censorship” probably seems odd from the international perspective of, say, an artist under house arrest in Burma, or a novelist with a fatwa against his life, or any creator whose computer has been confiscated or printing press smashed or gallery shuttered. Canadian artists are not the Champagne-swilling elites of the Conservative-sold stereotype. But our situation is more comfortable than our rhetoric often lets on. More comfortable, and yet also more compromised.

The truly “independent” artist in this country is perhaps more endangered than the polar bear. Few do their creative work untethered to the public purse strings. Almost all of us depend, in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes not, on the kindness of strangers—and by strangers, I mean taxpayers.

In a democratic society, how we spend public money should be up for debate: no taxation without representation, and all that. But amongst cultural observers, that debate tends to be framed in a narrative of imminent disaster and looming censorship. After top-ten lists, the most popular plotline used to discuss the arts is “The Sky is Falling”. Columnist Andrew Coyne has described such coverage as “a kind of ritual theatre in which the same lament is endlessly repeated: Canadian culture is dying, defeated, doomed, and all for the want of a few government dollars.” Any opinion to the contrary is intellectual heresy.

Eventually, however, that lament starts to fall on deaf ears.

Part of the problem may be the poverty of our language to describe subtle distinctions between interference and neglect. And part of the solution may be coming up with new words to do so.

I grew up Catholic, and while I’ve since fallen far from the tree, one thing Catholics know about is censorship. The Church turned censorship into its own “ritual theatre”, most infamously in what became known as the Index—which was the Oprah’s Book Club of the Inquisition. If your manuscript made the Index, it was bad news for you, but great news for your book—everybody wanted to read it on the sly.

Catholics are also very good at devising categories, especially when it comes to acting badly and paying penance for it. Catholic doctrine distinguishes between “mortal” and “venial” sins. Mortal sins are grave matters committed knowingly and deliberately—stuff that will get you sent to Hell. I think that censorship as it has been traditionally understood and practiced—as active interference by instruments of the State—is a mortal sin against freedom of expression.

Within the borders of our country, the fight against that mortal sin has largely been won, despite a few holdouts. No politician is keen to be caught sinning in this way. We saw the Conservatives retreat from Bill C-10, which would have allowed the government to revoke tax credits for film productions they didn’t like.

However, the silencing by a thousand cuts that artists in Canada feel they’re experiencing today, in which it’s not one artist or one work of art or even one artistic genre (like rap music or conceptual art) or one type of offensive subject matter that’s targeted, but rather individual threads removed from the greater fabric of cultural funding—that’s more of a venial sin.

Venial sins are less grave actions done without full knowledge of their ultimate consequences and often only semi-deliberately—and therefore they’re easier to commit and to forgive...a fact that can make them doubly dangerous, or at least especially hard to resist. “We’ve got nothing against the arts per se,” say politicians and bureaucrats. “We’re just balancing the budget.”

Maybe this venial sin deserves a new name, not censorship but censor-schism: a slow, subtle separation of Canadian artists from their accustomed means of patronage, of their ability to forge a living through creative practice. Artists still have the right to make art. They’re not harassed by legal and bureaucratic entities for their creativity. They’re just a little less able to afford to produce it or market it or distribute it or talk about it in any meaningful way.

Another way of thinking of it might be the famous distinction made by philosopher Isaiah Berlin between negative and positive liberty. Censorship is an assault on our negative liberty—on our freedom from interference and oppression. Censor-schism, on the other hand, affects our positive liberty—our freedom to live a certain way, to pursue our artistic goals and visions, to realize our full human and creative potential.

All my dithering about mortal versus venial sins, censorship versus censor-schism, freedom from and freedom to, might seem like hair-splitting. But I think it’s an important distinction. One that addresses the particular challenges of publicly funded Canadian artists during a political moment in which they can say and do almost anything—but shouldn’t expect anyone to pay for it, let alone pay attention.

Finally, I wanted to take a longer, more historical view of what could be described as the ecological relationship between the arts and censorship. The two impulses—to create and to repress—have always co-existed in the same cultural environment. It would be surprising, then, from a purely evolutionary perspective, if the censor and the artist hadn’t moved from predator and prey to some sort of uneasy accommodation. A symbiosis, you might say.

You can see some Canadian artists and aspiring censors settling into such a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s like the wolf and the sheepdog from the old Looney Tunes cartoon. If you remember, Ralph and Sam, as they’re known, are friends until they punch the clock and then they perform their conflicting duties with great gusto, before punching out again.

I’m not quite sure who is Ralph and who is Sam in the artists-versus-censors equation. However you cast them, they both need each other to sustain their identities—one as the guardian of public taste and social decency, the other as the rebel of Romantic myth willing to speak truth to power whatever the cost. Together, they have a social role to play. Separated, though, they are only two tiny voices shouted down by the barkers of the free market.

Again, we saw that complex relationship in the recent cutback controversy. First step: an artist—say, a rock band or a movie producer—chooses a name or a title or a topic designed to offend the easily offended, politicians, bureaucrats, and social conservatives of all sorts. Step two: the expected outrage ensues and angry calls are made, if not to censor the offending work, then at least to wonder loudly why it received public funding in the first place—a call for censor-schism, in other words.

Step three: Headlines are made, letters to the editor are written, Internet petitions are launched to lament about censorship and the death of Canadian culture. Finally, once the hubbub peaks and subsides, the two camps retreat to their corners to cool down. Sam and Ralph have performed their jobs—to offend and to be offended—and both may have gotten a brief moment of attention from the otherwise fickle eye of the media.

In Canada, getting censored—or nearly censored—can be a great marketing opportunity. In fact, it’s sometimes the only way for the question of “What is art?” to interrupt the superficial hype of the entertainment-industrial complex.

More historically—and perhaps less cynically—I think censorship has also played a role, not entirely negative, in the shaping of the artistic imagination.

Censorship acts as a litmus test of creative integrity, a sort of rite of passage. The prime directive of any artist is: Be curious. And then follow that curiosity wherever it leads. Sometimes it means poking one’s imagination into taboo corners of society, going where you’ve been told not to go. Breaking these taboos and asking those awkward questions, rather than bending to fit conventions, can separate artists truly dedicated to their creative vision from those who prefer to walk a safer, usually more lucrative path.

These safer paths of “political correctness” have taken many forms, from Academic painting of 19th-century France, to the “socialist realism” of Soviet Russia, to the “capitalist realism” of contemporary North America, to the subtle, even unconscious pressures to conform that artists must feel within their own peer groups. And let’s face facts: an awards jury or a grant committee or even a cocktail party of Canadian artists can be as narrow-minded and self-certain as a Conservative party caucus—they just happen to be on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

So, it’s sometimes a question of overt censorship, yes, but more often of peer pressure and self-censorship. Avoiding the temptation to adopt conventional wisdom of any sort adds a vital creative tension into the life and the work of the artist. Censorship, you might say, sharpens the instincts.

The poet Robert Frost once said that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. Why bother, in other words?

Making art without the specter of censorship, without the possibility of offending or disturbing someone somewhere, must feel the same way — really, where’s the challenge? How will you know if what you do really matters? If there’s no temptation to sell out or to conform or to play safe, how can you be sure that you’ve passed the test of integrity or not?

And beyond the faulty measures of purely commercial success—those top-ten lists and gate receipts—how do you know if your art really makes a sound?

It’s no wonder then, in our cultural age of attention deficit disorder and instant amnesia, that artists might feel a pang of nostalgia for the obsessive and impassioned attention of that ultimate audience member, that all-too-careful reader, that shadow patron who stalks our dreams — the censor.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Show Me the Monkeys!

It's been an exhausting month trying to keep up with my teaching duties, while squeezing a few talks and events in between. And the essay marking hasn't even begun in earnest!

I haven't found much time for my own creative writing, not even to blog, which is never good for my overall frame of mind. If I haven't been working on a story for a while, I start to feel the same sluggish anxiety—as though life were rushing past, while I was stuck waiting at a bus stop—that I do after a week of no or little exercise. A spin on the bike or a half-hour in the pool usually clears my muddled mind and addled body. But it's harder to recapture the creative energy of writing from a cold start.

So, it was good to see a feature article I'd written for Canadian Geographic, about a trip Jenny and I had done to Costa Rica several years ago, finally wend its way into publication. The story reminded me of two wonderful weeks in a country whose natural splendour (and monkeys!) remains keenly impressed in my imagination. And it will hopefully motivate me to knock off the last pressing items on my To Do list and get back to my much-neglected creative projects.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Paying Your Dues (Rainy Day Blues)

I had a fun long weekend with the family on the mainland. The excuse: I'd been invited to give a reading from Fatal Tide at the grand opening of the new North Vancouver Civic Library, an event that I'd be looking forward to for months. The weather forecast for the weekend was a little iffy—especially after the spectacularly sunny weekend before. And the festivities were mostly outdoors, although the readings would be under tents.

We had a grand time on the ferry ride over, at the aquarium (although A.J. insisted on seeing an octopus and I couldn't find one anywhere) and at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel, which overlooks the tugboat berths and drydock cranes: i.e., toddler heaven! It looked briefly like we might have luck for Saturday's weather: cloudy but no rain. But when we woke up that morning, the wet stuff started falling, as it can only in North Van. Foolishly, we thought we might walk the 14 blocks to the library—most of them up-hill, of course—and arrived pretty sodden. (A.J. at least had acquired new Thomas the Tank Engine galoshes that morning.) I felt bad for the organizers, who had gone to such efforts to put on a great day for their community, only to be thwarted by the worst of weather. The silver lining on the all-day clouds was that more people got a look at the new library, as many took cover from the downpour in the packed building. The music was great (local bands Mimosa and The Renegades), and Hollywood actor turned author Meg Tilly did a reading before mine.

Worse than having to follow Meg Tilly was following the arrival of the cupcakes. A swarm gobbled up the free treats and then quickly dispersed. My reading tent was left virtually empty. I begged Jenny to stick around (A.J. had soiled his diaper, Briar was screaming) for fear of not having any audience whatsoever. Finally, a couple of St. John's ambulance attendants came by and joined a few other people escaping from the now-monsoon-like downpour.

I'd written enough rock and roll profiles during my years at Monday Magazine to know all about paying your dues as an artist with low-attendance gigs The show had to go on, and I think I still gave the same performance I would have done to a packed auditorium. The drum of the rain at least added an audio component to the excerpts about the stormy Bay of Fundy.

I sold and signed three copies and had a good chat to a few of the people who stuck around. Hopefully, I made a few converts. Three o'clock hit, the show was done, and the rain abruptly stopped. The next day was gorgeously sunny, a perfect afternoon for an outdoor event. Maybe next time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Lookin' Sharp

Well, I've been neglecting my blog (and much else) to get prepped to go back to teaching for the first time in 16 months. The first week of classes has definitely been an adventure—just not a very outdoorsy one... which has been painful, given what a gorgeously sunny September we've been having here in Mile Zero!

It feels like I've been wrapping up my promo work for Fatal Tide. There's been a few enjoyable moments: a wonderful interview / review in this month's Focus Magazine (sadly, not online) by Sara Cassidy, one of our country's most attentive and perceptive writers about literature and the writing life; an excerpt from my book on the website of Sharp Magazine, a new Canadian men's publication (check out the Flash graphics: you'll find me squeezed between two cheesecake shots!); and invitations to read and talk at 1) the opening of the new North Vancouver Civic Library on September 20 and 2) at a meeting of the South Island Sea Kayaking Association on September 24.

Alas, the highs and lows of becoming a published book author will soon give way to weeks of marking essays. Still, I look forward to being immersed in my students' stories after more than a year of being absorbed—perhaps self-absorbed?—in my own tale-telling.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Vote for Sacred Rides

Mountain Equipment Coop is running a contest for homemade adventure videos, and I make a guest appearance in one of the entries. Mike Brcic, the tireless principle behind Sacred Rides Adventures and the Bikes Without Borders charity, has uploaded a 10-minute video of a scouting trip (which I wrote about for Financial Post Business Magazine) looking for the "El Dorado" of singletrack in Chile's Atacama Desert.

You can watch the video here. Be sure to vote for Mike and tell your friends to,as well, because he plans to donate any prize money if he wins to Bikes Without Borders, which refurbishes and supplies used bicycles to needy communities around the world. A great video and a great cause.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: The Adventure Blog

I was thrilled to get a long and appreciative review of Fatal Tide on The Adventure Blog, one of my favourite online stops, where I get my daily fix of updates about adventure news around the planet. Hopefully, that positive mention will get a little viral marketing buzz going south of the border among readers interested in adventure racing and outdoor topics.

As the book pages of major newspapers wither and die, blogs have stepped up as both a way for authors to update readers about their work and also to get reviews and other mentions of their books out into the world. Other blogs I check regularly include:
  • D.B. Scott's Canadian Magazines Blog, which keeps me and other magaholics in the loop about industry news and gossip
  • Book Addiction, whose mystery author (hi, Richard!) lists his recent book-buying sprees (guided by his taste in environmental literature) with handy mini-reviews and annotations
  • Leeward Press, home to Chad Fraser, a kayak enthusiast and fellow author out East
  • Green Tenant, a great idea for a blog by a buddy in Toronto: ecological resources for renters
  • And last but not least, Life with Two, the blog on written by my find out what I most recently did wrong, plus remind myself how cute our kids are when I'm travelling.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Simonator

I'll be the first to admit it: I'm a byline junkie.

As an aspiring creative writer years ago, seeing my name in print (in campus and community newspapers) was what ultimately teased me over to the "dark side", from the high, lonely peaks of capital-L Literature to the muck-raking, deadline-thick valleys of lower-j journalism. It's a fast and dirty fix. Hammer off a 800-word news article or a 2,500-word magazine piece. Wait a couple weeks or months. And—budda-bing, budda-bang!—there it is: your work and (better still) your name in print.

I still don't get tired of it. And now, as a magazine writer, there is a special thrill on those rare occasions when a feature story I've written gets prominently displayed on the publication's cover. Such was the case recently, as I was wandering through Ottawa International Airport, and I stepped past the magazine stand and saw Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield staring back at me.

It was the cover of the new issue of explore magazine. And it was my long feature profile of Simon that had made the cover (which was news to me). I was lucky enough to get to spend several mornings and afternoons hanging out with Whitfield and members of Canada's high-performance triathlon team as they geared up for the Beijing Olympics, and then interview a number of triathlon experts and past coaches who understand what makes Canada's top triathlete (and former gold-medal winner) tick. I was also lucky enough that my editor at explore gave me plenty of room (5,500 words, in fact) to dig into Whitfield's background, training regimen, and prospects for the 2008 Olympics.

Can he retake gold in Beijing in three days? Hard to call. There are about a dozen elite male triathletes who could podium: Tim Don of the U.K., Andy Potts of the U.S., Greg Bennett of Australia, several Kiwis and Germans and Russians... and of course Javier Gomez, the Spanish wunderkind who has been tearing up the sport for the last two years. He's anyone's top pick for gold.

But I'll definitely be watching and cheering Simon on (as well as Canada's Paul Tichelaar and Colin Jenkins). Researching the story only deepened my respect for the sacrifices and physical punishment that our amateur athletes endure. Sure, it was my story on the cover of the magazine. But it's Simon's amazing accomplishments and athletic efforts—past, present, and future—that make the story worth reading.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Travel Wanking

Here's a hilarious blog post from the Sydney Morning Herald's website about "travel wanking". Anyone who has accumulated a few rare visa stamps in their passport or kipped in fleabag hostels around the world has likely been a victim of—and probably an indulger in—travel wanking: the unselfconscious one-upmanship of dueling road tales, travel as an accumulation of arcane experiences with which globe-trotters can bully fellow travelers with their superior tastes.

Of course, it's always travel not tourism—the latter is what other, less sophisticated people do. (Full disclosure: I've surely wanked about my own travels more than a few times; apologies to anyone who has ever suffered from the vanity of my past voyages.) One of my favourite postcards, given to me by a colleague, sketches a man in a suit riding a camel past the pyramids. He declares to his companion: "I'm a traveler, not a tourist." Beside him a thought bubble rises from the head of an ambulatory Egyptian: "Another cultural imperialist!"

That's a distinction that the true travel wanker has uttered at some point in his or her post-trip recollections: "I'm a traveler, not a tourist."


And be sure to read the comments thread that follows the blog for further evidence that travel wanking, to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, is a mirror in which the wanker sees everyone but himself.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Extreme Do-Gooding

I got a fun assignment from the Life section of the Globe and Mail (thanks, Pat!) to write about "extreme do-gooders": Canadian adventurers who tackle epic outdoor challenges to raise awareness or money or both for environmental and other noble causes.

I'm glad the editors had space not just for the main profile of Benjamin Jordan and Leonardo Silveira of the Above + Beyond expedition (and Kevin Thomson of Creative Crossings Society of Canada), but also list some of my favourite outdoor altruists: Rob Dyke, Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison, Sébastien Sasseville, Greg Kolodziejzyk, and the tireless Ray Zahab.

All of them inspiring folks.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

B.C. Almanac

Monday afternoon, Mark Forsythe, the host of B.C. Almanac on CBC Radio, had me on his show to talk about Fatal Tide and the issues around risk, reward and outdoor adventure. It was great to chat with such a radio pro as Mark, who had read my book and was able to draw the story and opinions out of me with a clear line of questioning, and engage his phone-in listeners (all of them guys, curiously) in the debate, too.

If you have RealPlayer on your computer, you can listen to the interview for a couple days longer right here. (It's about halfway in, after the mayor of Williams Lake complaining about a street person.)

My wife likes to joke that I must feel guilty every time I go on CBC Radio (this is my fourth interview, for stations across the country) because I often complain when she has it playing in the house. (I can't read or write with talk radio in the background, and we also own the world's tinniest-sounding kitchen radio.) It's true: CBC (and radio in general) has been very generous in supporting my book.

Given how paltry (and poor-paying) the book review sections (where they still exist) of major newspapers have become, I don't know what Canadian writers would do without their radio fix. That has been one of the loudest lessons I've learned from my first four months as a novice nonfiction novelist.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Arctic Reads

The toughest part about any backpacking trip is deciding on that single paperback you can justify wedging into your already all-too-heavy pack. What if it sucks, and you're tent-bound for days with nothing worth reading except the washing instructions on your Gore-Tex jacket?

On my trip into Auyuittuq National Park and up past the Arctic Circle, I managed to pack the perfect literary match for the land we traveled through. Granted, it didn't take a lot of head-scratching on my part. A cheap paperback copy of Barry Lopez's well-known Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape had been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple years now, unread despite the other essays by the author that I'd enjoyed (and even taught), mostly because the book's subject seemed so distant (figuratively and geographically) from my own immediate concerns (could it teach me how to change a diaper? grade a paper?).

Now I had no excuse. But would it live up to its reputation?

It did and then some. What a wonderful marriage of science and travelogue, of memoir and poetry, of the history of exploration and the anguish of exploitation. What a glimpse into the lives of the Inuit who have lived in the region for four millennia and the strange, ethereal creatures who have stalked the Arctic's desert plains and unfathomed waters for even longer.

There are so many memorable passages:
This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration.
If we are to devise an enlightened plan for human activity in the Arctic, we need a more particularized understanding of the land itself—not a more refined mathematical knowledge but a deeper understanding of its nature, as if it were, itself, another sort of civilization we had to reach some agreement with.
Lying flat on your back on Ellesmere Island on rolling tundra without animals, without human trace, you can feel the silence stretching all the way to Asia. The winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in the halo of a snow-crusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured through all the pulsations of ice.

You can sit for a long time with the history of man like a stone in your hand. The stillness, the pure light, encourage it.
Lying flat on your back in a tent, amid the endless light of the Arctic summer, reading Barry Lopez can inspire a similar (if less eloquent) state of contemplation even in a trail-worn, toxic-smelling, slightly over-the-hill trekker. I couldn't imagine a better guide to lead me through that landscape and back again.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Back From Baffin

I'm back from two weeks on Baffin Island (and my longest email quarantine since the dawn of the felt surprisingly refreshing!) and am now spending a week with family in Toronto.

Auyuittuq National Park was spectacular: a wild river valley surrounded by glaciers and moraines and a massive ice cap the size of PEI. I intend to blog more about our trekking trip through the pass and the fascinating people we met along the way, but for now (as I pay off my paternal karmic debt for two weeks away from diaper duty), I'll have to leave off instead with this photo of Summit Lake (taken by Photo Solution editor Xavier Bonacorsi) from a ridge near Tyr Peak, with our campsite far, far below. It was tough slogging some days, but I miss it already.

P.S., For anyone in Toronto, this Monday, I'll be reading from Fatal Tide at the Harbord House pub at 7:00 pm.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Yippee Tyee!

I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a glowing pocket review of Fatal Tide in the "Summer Reads" special on, my favourite online magazine. Thanks for the plug!

Then on Sunday, the North Shore News ran a Q&A with me about the book. Coincidentally, the author/interviewer had gone to the same high school in Rothesay, New Brunswick, as René Arseneault, the young man whose death from hypothermia precipitated my whole investigation into the 2002 Fund Multisport Race. Small world.

And next Saturday, the National Post's books section will be running an interview with me about adventure-travel and writing, as a tie in to the book and the long excerpt that will be running in the summer issue of Financial Post Business.

It feels great to get some national coverage and articles in North Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, where outdoor adventure and other "lifestyle sports" are
especially popular. (I'm still hoping for a review in the Vancouver Sun, Terminal City's paper of record.)

I'm not quite sure what it takes to get mentioned in The Globe and Mail, however. An offer to ride across the country and hand deliver a copy myself? Writing a quasi-autobiographical novel about a
20-something style columnist who nearly dies kayaking across the Atlantic on a quest for the perfect pair of Manolo Blahniks? Inquiring authors want to know...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doing Stuff Outdoors

That's the name of a great podcast put together and hosted by Gary Mittelholtz out in New Brunswick. Gary had me on his show and interviewed me about the kayaking fatality at the heart of Fatal Tide and the larger consequences of the accident. It's no surprise that Gary works at the CBC for his day job, as he has one of those warm and resonant radio voices and a real passion for telling stories from across the country. I'd never heard of his podcast before, but I'll definitely flag it now and make sure I download the weekly episodes. He fills each with a variety of personal reflections, interviews with other outdoor travellers, and "podsafe" music from various artists. Just the sort of thing to load into your iPod for the drive to the trailhead or those quiet moments after nightfall in your tent.

Thanks for your interest in my book, Gary, and all the best with your program!

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Bestseller!

I'm quite excited that Fatal Tide has made its first bestseller list. Granted, it's not the New York Times' list, or The Globe and Mail's, or's. Rather, it's one put together by the wonderful folks at Café Books in Canmore, Alberta, where I read in April. My tome comes in at #7, just behind one of Eckhart Tolle's new-age hot properties. (Sadly, the list doesn't capture the real disparity in our books' sales!)

Hopefully, Fatal Tide will experience a similar mini sales spike in Whistler, B.C., after the great review that appeared in the Pique Newsmagazine. I loved the balance between humorous personal flair, plot summary and critical analysis that the reviewer brought to the article. My editor will be pleased to hear that the Cast of Characters list—her suggestion—was appreciated, and my wife will agree that the Introduction is a bit dry and not representative of the book's style as a whole.

Finally, I'm still waiting to hear from more readers who want to be ridden to (if that doesn't sound too crude) for an autographed copy of the book. It looks like a gorgeously sunny weekend, a perfect two days to saddle up for a cycle trip (at last). As a friend suggested yesterday, this mobile offer is the anti-Atwood: no distant and disembodied LongPen; instead a real, live, very sweaty author right on your doorstep!

And for all those with Spandex-phobia or a fear of authors in general, I did cycle down to Munro's yesterday and inked a few more copies for the store's supply.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cross-Country Coverage

Despite all the column inches devoted recently to the controversy over CBC losing the Hockey Night in Canada jingle, a couple of newspapers across the country found space in their pages to cover Fatal Tide. The Halifax Chronicle Herald ran a great long article that combined the author's attentive reading of the book, an email interview with me and several photos; I can't wait to see the actual spread. The Winnipeg Free Press ran a short review by a local lawyer that gave a decent summary of the Fundy Race and its aftermath (and may get picked up by other newspapers through the Canadian Press syndicate). And the Times Colonist, the Sooke Mirror, and all ran short news pieces about my Ride to the Readers campaign... I'm still waiting to hear from Reader # 2, however. I know you're out there! Thanks again to all these writers for taking an interest in—and the time to write about—my book.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Medal Haul

My old employer, explore magazine, had a fantastic night this past Friday at the annual National Magazine Awards. James Little (editor in chief), Gary Davidson (art director), and explore's coast-to-coast cadre of freelancers (led by former Canadian Alpine Journal editor Geoff Powter) brought home two gold medals, five silvers, and seven honourable mentions, including clean sweeps of the Travel and Sports & Recreation categories. Not too bad for a publication that has a tenth the editorial staff of larger magazines and only comes out six times a year.

Of course, didn't bother to mention explore's results in its NMA round-up. Somehow, three golds and a silver each (for ROB Magazine and L'actualité) add up higher in the "medal haul". Call it Olympic math. I hope the CBC can learn to add by the time they cover the Beijing Games.

Congrats again to James and his team at explore!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ride to the Readers #1

I rode to my first reader this morning. Okay, it wasn't exactly an epic journey: let's say two minutes, three tops, across campus.

I met with Don Bailey, the head of the
Humanities, Fine Arts and Professional Writing Cooperative Education Program at UVic. (He's the less reflective one in the photo.) Don has a new thriller novel out—The Good Lie—and we had missed each other's respective book launches, so it was a good opportunity to connect and exchange autographs.

While Don has written a fictional novel and I've described Fatal Tide as a "nonfiction novel", they do share similar content and themes: The Good Lie (so I understand) hinges around the moral conflict in the aftermath of a kayaking accident, while my book culminates in a controversial paddling death and its fallout. Don and I have talked about doing a kayak-themed reading in the near future, perhaps with fellow authors Lorna Jackson (who imagines interviewing Markus Naslund while kayaking in her new book Flirt) and Bill Gaston (whose novel Sointula has a kayak journey up the Inside Passage as the central plot device).

I'm not sure if a kayaking store would necessarily want to host the event, however, given how several of these literary trips turn out... And I'm certainly not going to offer to paddle to potential book buyers as my next ill-advised self-marketing idea!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

From Readers Like You

I got a lovely, confidence-stoking phone call and then email from someone who had attended my recent talk to the Victoria Writers' Society and then read Fatal Tide:
I recently read your book and found I could not put it down. It's a real page-turner! The complex story of the kayaker's death, seen from many angles, is woven together seamlessly. I did not expect to find the book that interesting (not being an outdoor adventure enthusiast), but it sucked me in right from the start.

The writing itself is superb throughout and, in places, absolutely dazzling.

Congratulations on such a fine first book.
Susan Scott, Victoria

Thanks, Susan! As a longtime magazine writer, I've rarely received such detailed and attentive feedback from readers. Yes, there are occasional letters to the editor, but they tend to focus on the subject matter rather than the writing. One of the pleasures of publishing a book is entering into such correspondence with readers. Book lovers, an increasingly endangered species, tend to be a passionate, opinionated lot. I suppose it comes from the commitment required, in our otherwise busy lives, to inhabit for many hours and even days or weeks the new world created between two covers.

I'm always interested in hearing feedback of any kind from readers who have chanced upon my book. Feel free to drop me a line at dleach[at] Writing a book can be a long, lonely, often frustrating journey. But it all feels worthwhile—no matter how many copies an author sells or how bankrupt one goes researching and marketing it—when a writer hears that the storytelling at the heart of the book truly connected with readers like you.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hot! Live! Author!

A couple weeks ago, I gave a talk to the Victoria Writers' Society in James Bay about the rollercoaster ride of publishing my first book: from conception to proposal to signing the contract to writing the first draft to editing the final draft and now my ongoing attempts to flog the beast like an old mule, with digressions into the vagaries of working with agents and publishers and copy editors and publicists.

The group had lots of great questions, some of which I even had answers for, and one of their queries was: "Do you have any books to sell tonight?"

Alas, my answer was no—still is, in fact—as I've blown through the 10 free copies I got from my publisher and have yet to order another box at my author's discount. Not wanting to miss a marketing opportunity, I made a rash, spur-of-the-moment offer: If anyone from the VWS bought a copy of Fatal Tide and wanted it autographed, I would come to her or his home and sign the book.

My response generated a laugh but so far no takers, so I've decided to extend the promise to anyone in the Greater Victoria area: If you buy a book from a local bookseller and drop me a line (email me at dleach[at], I will personally cycle to your abode (or meet you downtown or on campus) and inscribe the title page with my John Hancock (at a time and date that weather and my wife both permit).

Copies should be available at the better independent bookstores in Victoria and Sidney. I know Munro's has several, Bolen Books has stocked a healthy supply, and the UVic Bookstore (who graciously hosted my launch) still has enough hardbacks left over to build an addition to the Great Wall of China.

Sorry, Internet orders don't qualify, so save your proof of purchase. You've got to do a little leg work and support the local booksellers who support local authors, and then I'll be happy to saddle up and ink my thanks in person.


To avoid Internet pranksters sending me on wild goose pedals to non-existent addresses in Metchosin—which likely counts as "lesser" not "greater Victoria" anyway (joking, Lorna!)—I'm asking for a little verification. Book-buyers who want an authorial visit and an autograph must snap a quick digital pic of themselves holding Fatal Tide and email it to me, along with how they heard about the book, when and where they bought it, and what they think of it so far (be nice!). After that, we can set up your signing-by-cycle.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Monday, Monday

The good folks at Monday Magazine didn't have to do anything more to promote Fatal Tide, considering that John Threlfall had already run a Q&A with me about writing the book. So I was surprised and thrilled to learn that there is a full-on review (again by John) in this week's issue.

I was delighted, of course, that it is a positive and enthusiastic review—especially from a reviewer, who (as I already knew and John admits) "really has no interest in the subject matter."

I was even more delighted to have such an attentive reading of the book in a concise and informative article. John gives a better summary of the book's action and background than I've managed to (on the dustjacket copy and in many interviews), and he also manages to convey how (as I'd hoped) the various elements of the book tie together, like the narrative strands of a novel rather than the chunky, stand-alone chapters of a conventional nonfiction book.

I really did try to write the manuscript (and struggle immensely with the challenge) in a way that draws even those readers with little interest in adventure racing or extreme sports into the setting, the characters, the issues, and the drama of the action. In John's case, at least, it seems to have worked.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Adoption Papers

One of the more embarrassing habits—nay, obsessions—of first-time authors (and likely many publishing veterans, too) is Google-stalking their own books, in search of any mention of their "baby" in the deeper reaches of cyberspace.

Last night, I was committing another such act of literary onanism, when I came across unexpected news: I've been adopted!

The announcement appeared in an edition of the Kings County Record in Sussex, New Brunswick (east of Saint John). Apparently, the regional library is running an "adopt a book" campaign to raise money for new titles for its collection. I don't fully understand the logistical details, but a "tag tree" of books will be erected in a local mall for potential philanthropists to choose from. The first two books have been adopted already to kick start the campaign, and one—selected by the mayor of Sussex, no less—is Fatal Tide. (The other is
Extraordinary Canadians: Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards, so I'm in esteemed company.)

The news is both an honour and a surprise. Despite the book's maritime focus,
there hasn't been much media attention about the book on the East Coast yet, beyond my memorable foray into talk radio. So I have to thank the honorable Ralph Carr (photo: centre) for spreading the word in New Brunswick. It feels good to be adopted.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Keeping Up

I've been busy the last few weeks trying to keep up with Simon Whitfield, the Canadian triathlete who won the sport's first gold medal in Sydney in 2000. He lives and trains in Victoria, and I've been researching a profile of him for explore magazine. I've been hanging out and watching him train for the world championships in Vancouver next month and ultimately the Summer Games in Beijing in August.

Last Saturday morning, I joined Simon, coach Joel Filliol (who took the photo) and the rest of Team BAMF (Google it to discover the essence of this very un-Canadian acronym) near Beacon Hill Park for a running session. I felt proud of myself as I kept up with the group on their 2K warm-up loop through the park.

Ha! Then, after Simon tutored me in "dynamic stretching" techniques—basically, showing me how to kick my own ass before he kicked mine—we all dashed off for a set of "interval" runs around the same grassy loop. Or rather, they all dashed off and I chugged behind in the fading distance, eventually getting lost in the scrub around the petting zoo, and arriving back to the start line so late and so ragged that Simon and the fastest runners had already set off again for interval #2 after a two and a half minute rest. Simon did four more intervals at the same relentless pace. I was near cardiac arrest after my one.

I'd heard a lot about The Kick—the impressive sprinting power that Simon used to win gold in the most dramatic fashion at the Sydney Games. But to witness it in person, up close (however briefly), is another thing entirely. To watch Simon Whitfield run is to realize the sheer animal potential that lies dormant, largely vestigial in most of our ObusFormed, cubicle-farmed bodies—the essence of our savanna heritage that still hums deep within our genes.

We were made to run. And a few of us still can.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Making Radio Waves

I woke up early this morning to steel my nerves for a live radio interview that—because it was with a morning show in Halifax, four time zones away—was set to begin at 6:30 am. My publicist at Penguin had set it up, and I was thrilled, as it was the first bit of East Coast media attention for a book that's based on the Bay of Fundy. The show was called "Maritime Morning", and for some reason (the homey name, my failure to do basic fact-checking), I had assumed it was on CBC Radio, and had told different friends and family members as much.

I anticipated a laidback, touchy-feely CBC-style interview. You know, the host asking me to describe my writing process or the "emotional arc of the book's tragedy". That kind of thing.

I realized something was up, however, once the show's producer got me on the phone and then put me on hold to await the host. Over the tinny line, I could discern advertisements—on the CBC? that didn't seem right—including one for a company that promised to help people break their leases. Definitely not the Mother Corp. I quickly Googled "Andrew Krystal", and realized that my interviewer was the morning host at a Halifax talk-radio station, broadcast in Moncton and Saint John, too, and one with a controversial reputation for confrontation. A shock jock, if you will, although one of a less crass, more Canuck bent than notorious U.S. radio personalities.

And then he introduced me and we were off and running. I immediately wished I'd brewed myself a pre-interview pot of coffee, as I didn't feel caffeinated enough to keep up at first with the Gatling Gun line of questioning and opinionating. But I soon got the hang of it. Krystal wanted to have a go at "extreme sports" and the people who participate in them: "Isn't this just Darwin's way of weeding out the morons?" he said at one point, or words to that effect.

I was accustomed to the standard dance of the radio interview, the gentle back and forth between interviewer and interviewee, the softball Q returned with a languorous A. That wasn't going to work on News 95.7. So after the break, I took a different tack and disagreed with Krystal at every opportunity, defending outdoor adventurers and describing the psychological benefits of organized wilderness competitions—the experience of "flow", the harmony of mind and body, like a runner's high.

"Wouldn't it be safer just to spark up a reefer?" countered Krystal, which made me laugh, but at least I had the presence of mind to reply, "But not as healthy."

In the end, after a final flurry, we agreed to disagree. He thanked me for coming on and said he had enjoyed Fatal Tide—in his introduction, he had even read aloud from an early chapter.

My radio experience wasn't what I'd expected when I'd gotten up this morning, but it was challenging and fun. In fact, for a good half hour afterwards I was buzzing from the after effects: more adrenaline rush than pot high for sure. Just like in outdoor sports, there is a flow to a radio interview—especially a fast-paced debate—that can feel almost as exhilarating. And you don't even have to wear pants.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In the News

There is a nice mention in today's Ottawa Citizen of my cover article for explore magazine about the Howe Sound kayaking deaths, with a passing mention of Fatal Tide. The Citizen runs a weekly "Magazine Stand" section that looks at two or three current magazines and their contents; the Globe and Mail does the same, but the Citizen, I find, tends to focus more on Canadian publications and writers... which can always use an extra leg up in an intensely competitive industry. The Citizen is also one of the last remaining daily city papers to run truly comprehensive book coverage: i.e., not filled with wire-service reviews.

The Toronto Star is one of the others. Interestingly, my book recently got mentioned not in the newspaper's Book section but by one of the columnists in the Sports pages. I was thrilled for coverage (especially when someone uses the phrase "excellent writing") wherever it appears, of course, but I'm still awaiting (nervously!) the first kids-gloves-off review in the Books pages of a newspaper or magazine.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Tour So Far...

I've been back from my Alberta sojourn for a week but I am only now getting a chance to catch a breath. After nearly missing my first reading in Calgary, I gave myself plenty of time to drive to Banff, where I was giving a talk on the Saturday to the Creative Nonfiction Collective's annual conference. It was a lively affair in general and my workshop (titled "Who's Afraid of the Nonfiction Novel?") generated plenty of debate. I made the mistake of slipping out to the bathroom during the annual general meeting, however, and when I returned, I'd been nominated vice president! Gotta work on bladder control...

My next stop, on Sunday afternoon, was a reading and talk at Cafe Books, a gorgeous little shop on Canmore's main strip. Joy, the owner, had organized a sumptuous spread of food and drinks and set up an eye-catching display of my books. One of the wonderful things about publishing a book is meeting so many people, like Joy, who love everything about books (despite the grim economics that shadow every part of the industry) and who love helping authors. I gave another reading, signed a few copies, and then enjoyed pizza and wine at the home of a real adventurer rather than a weekend poseur like myself: author, photographer and arctic explorer Jerry Kobalenko.

Back in Calgary, the next morning I had a seven-minute spot on Breakfast TV, my first live on-air televised interview of the book. All very surreal for someone with a face and the fashion sense made for radio or blogging. I think the interview went well (all I know was that at least I didn't barf from nerves), although at one point I did blurt out (in response to a discussion of "flow experiences") "And SEX!!!" a little too enthusiastically.

After my TV escapade, I raced south on Highway 22 (a gorgeous drive through the Alberta foothills) to Fernie, BC, where I stayed with good friends and did another reading at Polar Peek Books. Keith, the producer of a local writers conference, had whipped up an enthusiastic crowd for me and the reading went fantastically: the best yet. We nearly sold out the 15 copies that Laura, the hospitable owner of Polar Peek, had ordered, and I left the store in high spirits. (Note to self: two pints of beer before a reading isn't necessarily bad prep.) As I told the audience, in my Literary Atlas of Canada, Fernie is a capital city.

The weather started deteriorating the next morning, and I worried that my rented Yaris wouldn't get me to the airport in time or that my plane would be grounded again. With relief, I arrived back in Victoria, and the next night I had my official hometown launch at the UVic bookstore. Again, the staff had set out a wonderful spread, and it was great to see so many familiar faces: friends, colleagues, students, neighbours, my own family (my parents came from Ottawa, my father-in-law from Toronto) and even members of the extended Arseneault clan. It was a special night...although the bookstore still has plenty of copies to go around, for anyone who couldn't be there! Get a copy and I'll be happy to sign it any time...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Snow Day in Cowtown

The Fatal Tide World Tour (aka, As Far As I Can Travel Before My Visa Card Implodes) began inauspiciously yesterday morning. I'd been booked to do a 7pm reading—my first for my book—in Calgary at the McNally Robinson bookstore (sadly, due to close in July), so I had checked through security at Victoria at 8 am to catch my 9:05 am flight. All was well... until a Westjet employee announced that flights to Calgary and Edmonton had been canceled due to a freak snowstorm. We trundled back through security, collected our baggage, and chaos ensued as several ill-formed lines tried to muscle their way to the Westjet counter to get rebooked.

When it was my turn, I learned the earliest they could get me to Calgary—assuming the snow stopped—was 8 pm. Uh oh. I pleaded my case: first-time author, book launch, yadda yadda. All they could do was suggest that I try Air Canada. The AC rep had a seat for me that (the weather gods willing) could get me to Calgary for 6:00 pm. That was tight, but my only option—even at $160 extra.

Bruce, my buddy in Calgary, confirmed that a blizzard had blown through town but seemed to be clearing. He was hopeful when I was nearly despondent. He promised to let the bookstore know I might be late. I asked him, if it was necessary, to read something to the restless hordes as my "opening act". (I was half-joking, but Bruce did turn up with one of his articles in tow just in case: semper paratus.)

I had an eight-hour wait in Victoria International Airport. Not as bad as it sounds (except for the Starbucks sandwich), as I was able to write the hour-and-a-half conference paper I have to deliver (on the nonfiction novel) this Saturday in Banff. Still, my heart sank when—an hour before take-off—I glanced up and saw that my new AC flight had been delayed 25 minutes.

Getting to the bookstore in time was now impossible. Getting there not so late as to be embarrassing was barely within the realm of possibility...assuming there were no more delays. The plane arrived on time, the AC crew (god luv 'em) did a NASCAR fast turnaround, and we were in the air by 5:15 pm Calgary time. I settled into my seat, turned on a little trancey Sufi music on my iPod to calm down, and then, just before she passed out from exhaustion, the woman beside me announced, "I heard it's snowing in Calgary again."


In the end, the afternoon flurries passed and the plane touched down at 6:40pm. I sprinted through the airport, decided to forget about my luggage (I could return for it later), grabbed a rental car and sped toward downtown Calgary—where I'd never been before. Thankfully, the Flames were playing that night, so the streets were barren and I made good time. At 7:15 pm, Bruce was standing outside McNally Robinson to catch my car keys and find a parking spot. I dashed up the stairs (of what's a gorgeous and soon to be much-missed bookstore) to greet my adoring crowd of... well, four. (Five once Bruce returned.) All except one were friends that I had guilted into attending. And the last attendee was a friend of one these friends. So much for the power of an advertisement (two weeks in a row!) in the Globe Books section.

Still, I was ecstatic to have made it against the odds. I gave a brief reading. I think it went well. (Who knows: it was a blur.) I sold and signed four books. I signed six more for the folks at McNally Robinson (the world's coolest bookstore! buy all your books there!) Then a bunch of us went out to a James Joyce Pub for a Guinness in the neutron-bomb quiet of downtown Calgary.

Of course, if my reading tour continues this way I'll bankrupt myself long before I get further east than Manitoba. If my Cowtown experience were one of those MasterCard commercials, here's how it would read:

Extra cost to make sure I got to Calgary on time: $160

Number of books sold: 4

Total revenue on sales: $120

My take on those sales: $18

(Not entirely true: I only get royalties once I sell the first 5,000 books, for which I got paid my advance. So actually I made nothing.)

Economics of my book tour so far: idiotic

Good karma from not missing the first reading for my first book: priceless

(P.S., Thanks to Bruce, Ken, Nic, Janice and Emilie, as well as Tyson and Thomas at McNally—you guys made my night! As the old saying goes: a man will always remember his first book reading...)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned From Reality TV

Okay, not quite.

But I thought this story from CBC Manitoba proved that not all reality TV makes you stupider (just most of it):
"Snowmobiler credits Survivorman for his own survival".

I met Les Stroud, the solo star of Survivorman, when I was working at explore magazine in Toronto and he was just setting out as a reality-TV producer. He's an interesting guy with a great sense of humour, which frees his show from the paleolithic macho chest-beating of other prime-time survivalists. Here's what I wrote about him in my book, for a background chapter on the rise of reality TV:
At least one reality-TV show tried to out-Survivor the popular series. By the time Burnett’s show went supernova, Les Stroud, a music-video producer from Toronto turned survival guru, had won several awards for his first film, Snowshoes and Solitude, an intimate video diary of his year living alone with his wife in the boreal forest of northern Ontario. He figured the hour was right for his own reality-TV concoction. Stranded first appeared on the Discovery Channel in 2001, and Stroud later appeared as Survivorman in Canada and the United States. In each series, he ventured into exotic wilderness locations to live off the land for a week and tell the story of his travails. He separated his methods from those of other reality shows by doing all the filmwork himself. Viewers no longer had to suspend their disbelief and ignore the fact that the on-screen survivors were being monitored round the clock by Big Brother-like teams of cameramen and boom-mike operators. In Survivorman, Stroud had to wrest nourishment and shelter from desert canyons, tropical jungles, or blackfly-infested bogs while simultaneously worrying about light readings, battery charges, and picture compositions. Watching a savvy outdoorsman like Les Stroud struggle to light a fire, catch a fish, or find anything remotely palatable to eat destroyed the delusion of many urban viewers that getting by in the wild was as easy as they might imagine.
I saw the rough cuts from his first season but have since only caught the occasional episode of Stroud's show while staying at motels. I've always enjoyed it—his approach is about as "real" as reality TV gets... at least within the current "ethics" of the contemporary entertainment biz.

Of course, network execs would be happy to feed their American gladiators and Big Brother contestants to real lions if they could get away with it... and get good Nielsen ratings.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

We're #573,271!

Well, now that my book is officially out in the world. I can begin to—as all authors apparently do in the Online Age—obsessively monitor my (or .ca in my case) ranking. And we're hot out of the gates, racing up the bestseller lists to #573,271. Eckhart Tolle, we've got you in our sights!

(I use the first person plural not as a grandeur-deluded royal we but as the more schizophrenic authorial pronoun: My Book & I. I've spent so much time along mulling
over the manuscript over the lasts five years that it has become welded to my identity, much like the carbuncular second head that grows atop Richard E. Grant's shoulder in How To Get Ahead in Advertising.)

Seriously, though, I got the first "review" of my book yesterday. I put the word in quotes because it appears in a magazine, and one that I've written for in the past, so it was always bound to be a soft-touch description of the book rather than a hard-hitting analysis. (If the reviewer truly hated the book, the editors would have likely just not run the review.) Still, it appears in the April issue of Canadian Geographic (read by over a million Canucks, according to recent industry stats), and so I am thrilled with the coverage and promotion. It runs as follows:
David Leach presents a vivid look at what happens when adventure races turn deadly. Sharp and descriptive writing plunges the reader into the icy waters of the Bay of Fundy on June 1, 2002, when crashing waves and stormy winds claimed the life of René Arseneault, a 22-year-old amateur athlete from Rothesay, N.B. Drawing on dozens of interviews and years of painstaking research, Leach provides a nail-biting account of the fateful day and explores the science of hypothermia in minute detail. Along the way, he asks tough questions about what drives people to compete in extreme sports, whether true adventure can be bought and sold and how much responsibility organizers of adventure races should bear when nature triumphs over humans.

—Geoff Dembicki, Canadian Geographic, April 2008
I'm hoping that the review will be the push that helps me—or rather, us—climb the rungs on and get over the #570,000 mark.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

First Reactions

I got my first reaction to the book last night. While an advanced copy arrived by courier last Thursday, I hadn't even realized the book was available to the general public yet, either via online sellers or at bookstores. Of course, over the past few months, I've gotten feedback from people who read—either as hired professionals or knowledgeable friends—earlier versions of the manuscript. But the email I received last night came from the first person to crack open an actual copy of the finished book and read it cover to cover and tell me what he thought—i.e., a genuine, honest-to-goodness, paid-out-of-his-pocket book reader.

It wasn't a critic but rather one of the participants of the race that forms the central subject of Fatal Tide. This is what he had to say:

Well done & thank you.

Why well done?

Your ability to deliver the story with every emotion I can think of. Having been in the race & so involved, it was easy to be captivated by your story telling. The science behind hypothermia was very interesting & the research was outstanding. Your accounts of the people involved had me consumed from the beginning.

Why Thank you?

You have given an honest account of the events on that day & the trials & tribulations of the aftermath to the athletes & theirs families.

My wife & I were so interested in the book that I read the complete contents to her out loud …….it was a first for us …..& we both laughed & cried.

So…..thank you & well done
It might not have the same effect on book sales as a positive notice in the Globe & Mail or a mention on the CBC, but it's this kind of reaction—especially from the people I wrote about—that matters most to me in the end. The people swept up by the events of the tragic Fundy Multisport Race and its aftermath entrusted me with their stories, so it feels good to hear that, for at least one person who was there that day, my version of that narrative, woven together from all their various threads, rings true.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Radio Gaga

I'll be joining guest host Dave Lennam to talk about my book again, this time on CFAX 1070 AM, at 3:30 to 4:00 pm today. My wife suggests that listeners can play a drinking game. Ever time I mumble "sort of" (my verbal tic of choice), you have to take a slug. I'd recommend something not too alcoholic!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Live... On the Island

I'll be appearing on CBC Radio Victoria's "On the Island" at 8:15 am tomorrow (Thursday, March 26th) to chat with guest host Dave Lennam for five or six minutes about my book. Tune in at 90.5 FM Victoria or listen via the internet.

My nerves are a rattlin' already, but there's at least one thing I love about radio: nobody knows if you're wearing any pants! (Keep that image in your mind if you're listening...)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Seven Deadly Review Words

There was a funny little post on one of the New York Times blogs about overused (and creatively lazy) words in book reviews. The author picked seven particularly egregious nouns and adjectives:
  • poignant
  • compelling
  • intriguing
  • eschew
  • craft
  • muse
  • lyrical
I've been guilty over-using nearly all these review standbys in my own writing... except perhaps "lyrical", which I've always considered in the same faux-poetic family as lambent, luminous, etc. etc. And even though I've dropped it into sentences dozens of times, I'm not sure if I even know how to pronounce "eschew" properly!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Judging a Book (see under: cover)

Sadly, most of my adventures in the past three weeks have been both indoors and prosaic, rather than outdoors and/or literary: preparing to move house, moving house, swearing as we punched a too-large sofa through the freshly painted wall of our reno'd house. (I guess we were trying to make our indoors outdoors.)

I did find a little time to begin a campaign of shameless self-promotion in the hopes of getting a little media attention (a whisper, if not a buzz) when my book finally appears. Even at this stage—as I'm dealing with a publicist, a publisher, an agent, various booksellers, event planners, conference organizers, newspaper reporters, magazine editors, and TV and radio producers—the fact of the book's imminent publication doesn't feel real, and won't, I suppose, until I actually hold a physical copy in my hands, feel its heft (or lack thereof), the same tactile bibliophilia one experiences while browsing a good bookstore and that can't be reproduced by surfing

What does convince me—more than five years of research and writing—that a book really will emerge at the end of this long, dark, nearly soul-destroying tunnel is the fact that I know (and have known since last summer) what the actual cover will look like. When I first saw it, I was a little taken aback by the cover design's (quite literal) in-your-face-ness. The book is about a kayaking tragedy on the stormy Bay of Fundy, and I'd always imagined a cover image (rather clichéed, I'll admit) with a distant paddler riding a mammoth wave: Paddle-to-the-Sea meets The Perfect Storm.

The one produced by the Penguin design team is far more dramatic. At first I worried: Is this too over the top for a true-life story of a young man's tragic death (several young men, in fact)?

The image quickly grew on me, however. I like the stark, graphic-novel-like quality of the photo-illustration (if that's what it is). And the close-up immediacy of the image better suits the style and point of view of my "nonfiction novel", in the sense that I've tried, as much as possible, to get inside the heads of the various participants of the Fundy Multisport Race, rather than view them from the pseudo-objective distance of traditional news reporting.

Most of all, I like the ambiguity of the person's expression on the cover. It could be an image of pain and panic—the look of someone in trouble, in desperate straits. But it could also depict an athlete in a moment of extreme effort, of pushing himself (or herself, even the gender isn't 100% clear) to the physical limits. And that ultimately is the border region that Fatal Tide explores: the desire of endurance athletes to experience moments of psychological exhilaration through physical suffering...and the sometimes fatal consequences of pushing themselves too far.

A cover, in the end, is intended not simply as a reflection of a book's themes, but mostly as a marketing device: people do judge a book by its cover, or at least whether to buy it, borrow it, and read it or not. With that goal in mind, the cover for Fatal Tide has worked so far. Last week, I sent out a few batches of emails to PR people and newspaper editors, inquiring if they'd like to do a story or a mention of the book.

The first emailing included just my written pitch and description of the book: I batted about .250 in the number of answers I got back. Then, for the next inquiry, I attached a small jpeg of the cover: suddenly, my average shot up—I got several immediate replies, and a good three-quarters of people I sent the message to said they wanted to read the book and likely do an article.

Did they judge the book by its cover? Who knows. But I think it definitely made them wonder what was inside.